Sunday, January 10, 2021

By Anthony Hennigan

The ink is barely dry on the 2020 GAA season but thoughts are already quickly turning to the fast-approaching 2021 season. We run through the A to Z of what the upcoming year may bring on the club and inter-county GAA scenes.

A is for…

All-Ireland. Where else to start this year but where the last one ended? It’s the 70th anniversary of Mayo’s last time to be crowned senior football champions. Apparently, you’re supposed to receive a gift made of platinum. We’ll settle for Sam – a cheaper metal perhaps, but priceless to us.

B is for…

Bridesmaids. Weddings were few and far between in 2020 and you wonder will Breaffy ever have its big day out? Beaten in four of the last eight finals, including the last, the Boys in Blue have yet to experience the joy of winning the Mayo Senior Football Championship. Their dream never dies.

As Ciaran McDonald prepares to head into his second season as senior team selector, every Mayo supporter is wondering if there will be yet another championship showdown with Dublin in 2021. Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

C is for…

Cap. As in James Horan’s. Lookit, if you don’t know, you’re not on Twitter.

D is for…

Donie. (No, not that one.) The Monaghan footballers have acquired the services of Donie Buckley for the coming season. If he improves their defending as much as he helped improve Mayo’s during his time as coach from 2013 to 2018, then the Farney County could be in for a memorable ride.

E is for…

Easter. It falls on April 4 this year, the same weekend that the GAA has pencilled in to play its National Football League finals. What a boost it would be to see Mayo involved in the Division 2 decider and returning to the top flight at the first time of asking.

F is for…

Finances. Whatever about the impact of last year on the balance sheets of county boards up and down the country, to commence another campaign (the League begins just next month, remember) in the knowledge that spectators will have to remain absent, would test treasurers – and therefore team managers – to their absolute maximum.

G is for…

G’day or not g’day. The interest of certain Australian Football League sides is terribly exciting for one or more young Mayo players at present and in equal measure terribly worrying for Mayo supporters. Any young man offered the professional dream would head Down Under with the good wishes of their county but if it’s possible to persuade and display how their better option would be to commit to the Green and Red, those who can do that must do that.

H is for…

Hogan. Or Hill. After the first All-Ireland final in history to be played in the presence of few others except players and press, let’s hope last December’s truly was a one-off and that come the GAA’s newly fixed date of July 17/18, Mayo supporters are ensconced in the bloodsport of trying to secure a precious All-Ireland final ticket.

I is for…

Intermediate. If Balla can win it, we can win it. Every manager of a Tier 2 club in Mayo will be saying that to his players this year. The addition of Moy Davitts (relegated from senior) and Kilmaine (promoted from junior) to a shark-infested pool that includes the likes of Hollymount-Carramore, Crossmolina Deel Rovers, Ballinrobe and Kiltimagh, will make the destination of the Sweeney Cup impossibly difficult to predict.

J is for…

Jackeens. Their team remains the one to beat. The All-Ireland Championship is fast becoming as one-sided as sticky tape so if not Mayo, then someone else needs to rain on Dublin’s parade – and quickly. The Metropolitans are odds on favourites to win a seventh consecutive All-Ireland title and Mayo, the team many deem as closest in ability to the Dubs, are rated 12/1 shots. That says it all really. If we were both to win our provincial titles and quarter-finals, it’s at the semi-finals we’d meet.

K is for…

Knockmore. Once the majority shareholders, it took the men from the Parish of Backs all of 23 years to regain the Moclair Cup so expect a tooth-and-nail fight from Ray Dempsey’s side as they attempt to remain the top dogs of Mayo club football. Their age profile is such that the ambition must surely be to add a few more titles to their name.

The Green and Red are due to commence their Connacht SFC campaign there on the weekend of April 17/18, however, that fixture hangs in the balance due to the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic. Picture: INPHO/Garry McManus

L is for…

London. As things stand, Mayo are due to commence this year’s Connacht SFC with a visit to London on the weekend of April 17/18, however, the participation of the Exiles in the provincial competition and before that, the National League, is very much in the air due to the uncertainty of the Covid-19 pandemic and its associated restrictions.

M is for…

Mayo. Now. Forever. Always.

N is for…

Naughton. As in Peter. Are Mayo really prepared to allow the services of the top scorer in last year’s county senior football championship be put at Sligo’s disposal before taking a serious look at whether he has something to offer their own team? The Knockmore man hooked up with the Yeats County during the autumn but was ineligible to play and given the man who enticed him to join the panel, Paul Taylor, has since stepped down as manager, could Naughton yet be lured into wearing his native Green and Red? Former Mayo coach Tony McEntee is the new man in charge of Sligo.

Former Mayo selector Tony McEntee has recently taken charge of the Sligo senior footballers. Could the paths of the two teams cross this year – and could a Mayo man be at the forefront of the Sligo attack? Picture: INPHO/James Crombie

O is for…

Oisin. Few Mayo players have become so identifiable in such a short space of time. Fewer again are so easily identifiable by only their first name. The first man born in the 21st century to play in an All-Ireland SFC final, the Kilmaine youngster lit a torch in 2020 as to the future of Mayo football – but some difficult decisions could lay in store in the year ahead (See G).

P is for…

Pitch. It has already been agreed to resurface MacHale Park and the only question now is when exactly that takes place. With this year’s Connacht championship due to proceed much earlier than usual, in April, it’s possible Mayo County Board might try and delay works until after the senior team has enjoyed any possible home advantages. But it would seem certain that some of the biggest club championship knockout matches of this year could be distributed to venues such as Ballina, Crossmolina, Charlestown or Ballinrobe. And no harm either.

Q is for…

Quarter-finals. GAA has dispensed with the Super 8s format which had two airings in 2018 and 2019 and will revert to the Provincial-Qualifiers-Quarter-Finals structure for the upcoming All-Ireland Championship. For those who have forgotten how that works already, it means winning a Connacht final transports you directly into the last eight in the race for Sam whereas the loser is pushed one step back to play one of four survivors from the bear-pit of the qualifiers.

Mayo’s Brian Morley in action during last year’s Nicky Rackard Cup final against Donegal. Picture: INPHO/Lorraine O’Sullivan

R is for…

Rackard. It would have been nice to win it, for sure, having got to the final, but with no promotion for the winners this time anyway, it wasn’t the end of the world when Mayo’s hurlers lost the Nickey Rackard final to Donegal last November. But with a passage back to the Christy Ring Cup on offer to the 2021 champions, expect an all-out assault from the men in Green and Red. Derek Walsh has been reappointed as the manager for a fourth season, but when will be a good time to raise again the issue about dual players?

S is for…

Split season. For the club player known to ‘struggle’ with his conditioning in the off-season, quite what shape he’ll be in when activities resume in 2021 may become a source of macabre fascination. The stretch of the jersey will be well tested by some, that’s for definite. With the GAA settling on devoting the first half of the year to inter-county and the second half to club, it won’t be until the last weekend in July that counties get to commence their main club competitions. For many club players, that will be almost eleven months after their last competitive match.

Westport goalkeeper – and Roscommon senior panellist – Paddy O’Malley saves from Breaffy’s Robert Fadden during last season’s Mayo SFC. With the GAA introducing a split season in 2021, no club championship will take place until the last weekend of July at the earliest.

T is for…

Tribesmen. Expect that Padraic Joyce is already using every waking minute to devise a way – should their paths cross – of relinquishing Mayo of the Nestor Cup. The proud and ambitious Galwegian was visibly hurt by the differing manners of his team’s home league and championship defeats to the auld enemy in October and November and will implore his players to place provincial domination as the least of their ambitions for the year ahead. We have been warned.

U is for…

Under 20s. It won’t have sat well with a host of young Mayo men that the Galway team they lost only on penalties to in the Connacht championship last February went on to become All-Ireland U20 winners in December. Michael Solan has stepped down as manager with Tom Morley and Maurice Sheridan set to contest the vacant role, but some key pointers for the season ahead are that there is to be no ‘warm-up’ league competition, that all provincial championships will be straight knock-out, and that the entire competition – provincial to All-Ireland – will span just six weekends, from March 27 to May 2.

V is for…

Vaccine. A bit like the hotdogs from the chipper van on the North Circular near Croker on match-day, you’re not sure of the side effects but you’re willing to give it a try anyway. Here’s hoping the back is about to be broken in this battle against the cursed coronavirus and that some of the things we once accepted as normal can return and be appreciated all the more.

W is for…

Who? As in, who said that? It was never the easiest task for a referee to decide for definite who it was spewed that volley of abuse towards them from the sideline, but it’s been nigh impossible since the couple of dozen stood at the dugouts have Bedouin type clothing wrapped halfway up their faces. For that reason could we expect the mask to become a piece of permanent attire for some of the more excitable mentors long after restrictions have been lifted?

X is for…

X. As in the Roman numeral. 10 times Mayo have reached All-Ireland senior finals since 1951 and, well, there’s not much need to point out the rest. But could MMXXI be our year? Sometimes the simplest messages are the easiest to embrace, like that of the late baseball legend Ted Williams: “Just keep going. Everybody gets better if they keep at it.”

Y is for…

Yards. The hard ones. On Friday week, the senior footballers and hurlers of Mayo and their counterparts from across the country will be permitted to return to collective training in preparation for the National Leagues. Just two weeks after that they will be allowed to play inter-county challenge matches so long as an overnight stay isn’t involved, “due to Covid-19 and its associated risks”. The FBD League and its fellow pre-season competitions have all been scrapped for this year.

Z is for…

Zippy. Less well-known to his teammates as Keith Higgins. He made the bench for the All-Ireland SFC final against Dublin. But while others of a similar vintage such as Tom Parsons, Seamus O’Shea, David Clarke and Donie (yes, that one) Vaughan have decided to call time on their inter-county careers, whether or not we have seen the last of great warriors like Zip, Colm Boyle or Chris Barrett in a Mayo jersey may not become clear until, well, we see some, all or none of them in a Mayo jersey again.

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